Cedric Emanuel, a biographical fragment

Cedric Emanuel (1906-1995) was one of the most productive and versatile of Australian artists.  He has major importance as a visual historian. For almost seventy years he  sketched and painted the rapidly changing scenes of Australia from the outback to the inner suburbs of Sydney.   This provides a unique historical record that may be equaled by some photographic collections, though not by any single person.

Cedric trained in the ‘roaring twenties’ and had vivid memories of many legendary figures in the art world such as William Dobell, Elioth Gruner, Sydney Long, Dattilo Rubbo, Julian Ashton and the Lindsays. The twenties were starting to burn out by the time he started work. Despite the adverse economic circumstances he made a highly successful career in commercial art and pursued his serious commitment to sketching, painting and etching in his spare time. His etchings received high critical acclaim at his first exhibition in 1938; the National Gallery of NSW purchased two and another won the etching section of the Sesqui-Centenary Art Awards.

During the war he served in New Guinea as an Air Defence Officer in charge of camouflage and he became an unofficial war artist.   This work resulted in his first book and subsequently he has illustrated more than fifty books, some containing sketches from the 1920s. He has collaborated with a number of significant writers, including Bill Beatty (one of the first popularisers of Australiana), Phillip Geeves, Olaf Ruhen, Tess van Summers, Ruth Park and Geoffrey Dutton.

In his youth he was an outstanding all-round sportsman. He won an amateur wrestling championship of NSW defeating the man who later became known as ‘Gelignite Jack’ Murray in the final and he excelled in boxing and football.   Discriminating observers suggest that he might have represented Australia in rugby if art had not been his priority.   He was heavily involved in the unique beachside culture of the voluntary surf lifesaving clubs, and he was a member of the Bondi team, which won the Australian rescue and resuscitation title in 1929.   As a beach patrol captain he was in the thick of the rescue operation on Black Sunday (1938) when scores of swimmers were caught in a deadly rip on Bondi Beach.

In 1981 he received the Order of Australia.

Cedric Emanuel and his elder brother Dudley spent most of their schooldays at Abbotsholme College, an open-air boarding school at Killara on the North Shore of Sydney. This school was an unlikely nursery for artistic talent but it was here that Cedric first recalls the impulse to draw.

I often stayed in the classroom after school to draw from the comic strips. I remember being dragged out for football practice. Of course art in those days was looked upon as something queer in a boy’s make-up and it certainly was not taught.

Dudley moved on to study pharmacy at Sydney University and Cedric shifted to Bondi Public School, “to await the chance of a job as an artist”.   His course in life was already set though the source of this inspiration is not clear, with little indication of artistic tendencies in his forebears or friends of the family, and certainly no encouragement at boarding school. His new school served him better. He became the Art Editor for the school magazine. The art teacher, Mr Singleton, was so impressed that he persuaded the headmaster to let Cedric spend two afternoons a week taking lessons at the Royal Art Society.

This opportunity was decisive. Cedric’s teacher at the Royal Art Society was the celebrated Italian, Dattilo Rubbo.   He became the first of several important guides and influences in Cedric’s artistic development. Others included Julian Ashton’s school and the great etcher Sydney Long.

Dattilo Rubbo  

“You ‘ave done nuttink. Rub it all out”.

Dattilo Rubbo (1870-1955) was one of the great characters in the Sydney art community. He studied at the Royal Academy in Naples, arrived in Sydney in 1897.   According to legend he intended to sail to South Africa but after a night-long farewell party his friends put him on the boat to Sydney for a joke.     He set up an art school almost immediately and he continued to teach for 40 years.

He also taught at an exclusive private school.   Margaret Coen recalls from her Catholic school days.

Rubbo swept into Kincoppal every Friday to teach art. Darkly handsome, his brown eyes flashing, and sporting a black goatee beard, a long scarf flung carelessly around his neck, he always wore a dark green Borsalino hat pulled low to one side. Here was an art master who looked every inch an art master.

Coen described one of Rubbo’s more distressing teaching methods, to demolish students’ work if it did not meet the required standard. This process could be easily achieved for drawings done in charcoal, with a sweep of thumb, handkerchief or feather duster.

‘Rub it out, rub it out’ Rubbo would whisper furiously.

Cedric told a similar tale.

We worked in charcoal. Who could forget the shock one would get after working for hours on a project, and you just about thought you had a marvelous thing done, you were putting your chest out, and he’d come along with his big feather duster and with one swish your masterpiece would flake to the floor. “You ‘ave done nuttink, rub it out and do it all over again”.

For all that, Cedric considers that it was a great education for a young man. ‘If your heart was going to be broken, he broke it, but he probably put you on the right track.’

Julian Ashton’s school

Julian Rossi Ashton (1851-1942) was hailed by Norman Lindsay as the premier art teacher of his generation.   He came to Australia from London and in 1896 he started the Academie Julien, named after the famous school in Paris which he attended. When he died in 1942 the name changed to The Julian Ashton Art School. For a long time the dominant influence in the school was exerted by H. C. Gibbons who joined in 1923 from the East Sydney Technical College. When Cedric Emanuel arrived at the school a couple of years later Gibbons had responsibility for most of the teaching and he continued in that role for the best part of four decades.

Ashton’s school became a major institution in Sydney artistic life and among the teachers at various times were Thea Proctor (composition) and Norman Lindsay (illustration). Famous pupils included George Lambert, William Dobell and John Passmore who also taught there in the 1950s.

Sydney Long

Sydney Long (1878-1955) was born in the NSW country town of Goulburn.   He studied under Julian Ashton in Sydney and continued his studies in London where he achieved a great deal of recognition, especially as an etcher.   He was the only Australian at that time to be elected an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters and Etchers.

Back in Sydney he set up an etching school in his George Street studio where his students included Donald Friend, Cedric Flower, Richard Ashton and Bim Hilder. As we shall see later, another was Cedric Emanuel.

Long had a totally different teaching style from that of Rubbo. According to Margaret Coen he took his teaching less seriously and was less abrasive. ‘Small and quiet with grey hair, Syd was a bit grey all over but he had a pleasant, rather inquisitive expression and a gentle smile. He would stroll around the classroom, humming as he looked at our work…”That’s nice,” Syd would say, then reach into his pocket and hand over a boiled lolly. Syd always had a bag full of lollies in his pocket and he always hummed “In the Good Old Summertime”.’

Richard Ashton (grandson of Julian and later director of the school) remembers Long as a great friend and supporter of young artists whom he entertained at his boatshed on the Narrabeen Lakes on the northern beaches of Sydney. On one occasion of floods and high tides, Ashton remembers a vivid scene of boats, oars, bedding and Syd’s paintings floating in dirty water knee-deep in the boatshed.

The State Studios

In 1922 Cedric left school and moved into the commercial art world as an unpaid assistant at a commercial art firm called the State Studios. He obtained this position through his father’s acquaintance with the resident fashion artist.

In the normal course of events a payment or “premium” would have been paid to the Studio for granting Cedric the privilege of learning the craft on their premises. However, in view of the chronic financial problems, which dogged his father, it was agreed that no premium would be charged. Instead, Cedric could work for a year unpaid, going on to receive five shillings a week in the second year if all went well.

Each member of the staff in the State Studio had special skills. The boys, Cedric, Brian Weekes and Harold Abbott ran messages, did small drawings and filled in the flat colour background.   Cedric recalls the fashion artist, the resident expert in rendering cars and other mechanical subjects by means of the airbrush and the man who did still life.   Paul Fullerton headed the group, with responsibility for lettering and overall design.

Some of Cedric’s messenger duties took him to Grace Brothers. Always gregarious, he was inclined to amuse the girls with an occasional playful kiss or cuddle and many jokes. For an extra bit of fun he gave his name as Paul Fullerton.   One of the ladies happened to know Paul’s wife, though she did not know Paul on sight.   She reported to Mrs Fullerton that her husband was carrying on with the girls in a shameless and disgusting manner.   ‘She almost divorced him,’ Cedric relates, (one hopes with an element of exaggeration).

During his time at the State Studios, Cedric began to attend Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School at night.   The school was located in the handsome complex of the Queen Victoria Markets, now restored to its former glory. On Friday evenings the ground floor became a real market, illuminated by flares, with live chickens and ducks on sale, along with the other items of the marketplace.

By the time Cedric attended the school, Julian Ashton had stopped teaching and so Cedric cannot provide a useful comparison or contrast between Ashton and Rubbo. Gibbons was the main teacher and Cedric found his time at the school to be useful but not inspiring. Certainly it paled in comparison with its primogenitor in Paris, as Cedric was to discover many years later when he visited the Continent.   He recalls that ‘ The particular thing I liked was outdoor work, although the art school was important for figure studies and for quick sketching’.

After a year at the State Studios without pay Cedric began to earn five shillings a week, which increased to 2 pounds five shillings a week.   He supplemented his wages with some work on tickets and signs on his own account for a few shillings each. He realised that a few of these jobs would exceed the value of his weekly pay. Besides, he wanted to have time for his own work.   Above all he wanted to study in Paris.

‘I decided that if I was ever going to be an artist, I’d best leave and start freelancing. One Friday I said to Mr Foster, my boss, “I’m leaving today sir.”
“I want to earn some money. I can’t even afford to take my girl to the pictures.”
With a loan of five pounds from his father, he installed a phone in a room in Callaghan House, 391 George Street.   Ten shillings of his own furnished the artist’s essentials of table and chair. He was launched.


Cedric’s commercial life was busy and financially rewarding. His father scouted for custom through the commercial art studios and the advertising departments of retail firms in the city. Without knowing good work from bad he carried samples of Cedric’s output, confidently proclaiming, “My son is the best artist in Sydney” and offering “A Jardine’s quality but not a Jardine’s price”. Walter Jardine was then the leading commercial artist in the country.

With his father’s energy and his own application Cedric was flush with work from the time he put up his own shingle. “I didn’t have time even to write the invoices.”   His father took care of that side of the business as well. One of the reasons for this hectic effort was Cedric’s desire to go to Paris to become a real artist. This was his main ambition in life and this resolution carried through to his beloved sporting activities at Bondi Surf Club.

Wrestling was one of his great talents and hopes were high that he would go far in the sport.   He warned his devoted coach that wrestling would have to take second place to his desire to be an artist, though he promised to continue until he won a major championship. In due course he defeated Jack Murray to win the amateur wrestling title of NSW and he made good his promise to quit the sport. “They never forgave me!” he laughs. Jack Murray later became famous as ‘Gelignite Jack’, a leading contestant in many Redex Round- Australia car trials of the 1950s. His trademark was exploding sticks of gelignite, thrown from the speeding car. “Jack was a hard man,” Cedric recalls, “but in those days so was I.”

His efforts in the Callaghan House studio were so well rewarded that he accumulated enough cash to make his dream a reality in 1928 at the age of 22.

After a few years of working commercially during the week with only the weekends for the out-of-doors sketching that I loved, I decided to go to Paris to art school. My dear old friend Vic Bulteau, also a Bondi surfer, who was on the Art Gallery staff met me at lunch times for conversation French lessons and I booked to travel on a French liner.

He went out and had a look at the cabin, but then he had to break the news to his father. Reggie must have been aware that something like this was likely to happen and when the blow came he pleaded with Cedric to reconsider. He was afraid that he would never see his son again. “You will never come back.”
“Probably not.”
No doubt in the back of Reggie’s mind was the matter of his own means of support. Cedric stayed. He cancelled the venture and it was to be many years before he reached the Academie Julien.

The magician’s chamber

Cedric’s studio was located on the fourth floor of Callaghan House, 391 George Street, now the General Pants building. One day in the rickety lift Cedric found himself in the company of a group of “odd bods”.
“You fellows look like artists. What are you doing here?”
“We are going to an etching class.”

By a stroke of good fortune, Sydney Long had his studio in the attic of Callaghan House. Cedric went along to see what was going on and soon was a member of the class.
Among these “odd bods” who went to Long’s classes was young Richard Ashton, grandson of Julian, later an official war artist in New Guinea and principal of the Julian Ashton School. He recalls Cedric as a friendly and very busy fellow who occasionally joined the crowd at the nearby Penfolds wine bar. His studio door was usually open and he always had a cheery word but his business was brisk and he did not join the ranks of the artists in their leisure pursuits. His spare time activities centred on the Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club.

Etching is an art form with a large component of craft and an element of mystery. It combines elaborate, almost ritualistic preparations with a hint of alchemy and the esoteric. Consistent with this image, Sydney Long’s studio has been described by one of his biographers as “something of a magician’s chamber.”

Large glass jars of acid, greener than emerald or chrysoprase, copper plates shining and as yet untouched, glowing with comfortable awareness of their superior destinies. Heaters and gas jets and curious steel implements with which truth will be forced from the metal plates with the rigorous perseverance of a Spanish inquisition.

Light-hearted moments intruded. One day Syd Long was very upset to find that a stack of laboriously prepared copper plates had been partly bitten. Inquiries revealed that the culprit was Syd’s cat, which had wet on them!

For a while the “bitten line” of etching became the medium that Cedric liked best. The etching is made by drawing the outline of the proposed picture in the wax ‘ground’ over a copper surface. When the plate is immersed in acid the unprotected lines of copper are “bitten”, making grooves which hold ink when the copper plate is used as a printing block. A series of immersions may be made to progressively build up the number and depth of lines on the plate.   Printing is also a very elaborate process because the plate is heated and cooled between successive applications of ink.     Excess ink is rubbed off using a coarse cloth and a special circular motion. In the meantime the paper has been prepared by damping and allowing to dry overnight. As Cedric described it

The paper is put on top of the plate on the bed of the etching press. With a quick motion it is rolled through the rollers and your finished result, when you lift the paper from the plate, is either very pleasing or very distressing. If you have over-bitten, there is nothing you can do about it but start the whole process all over again. This is why there are not a tremendous number of successful etchings because it is a heartbreaking medium to work in.

Cedric remembers Sydney Long as a very helpful man who provided a wonderful introduction to the art and craft of etching. There was a strong Painter-Etchers Society which included the Lindsays, Squire Morgan and Will Ashton. The latter sold Cedric his excellent geared English press. This replaced an old mangle press, which required a lot of effort. “Just as well I was a wrestler!” Cedric recalls, describing himself swinging on the handles of the unwieldy old machine.

Another helpful influence at this stage was Dave (D.H.) Souter, a friend of the family and president of Bondi Surf Life Saving Club.   He was a cartoonist on The Bulletin, well known for the Souter cat, which was his signature.   One day he took Cedric to the Bondi home of Elioth Gruner, an outstanding artist, and the great man provided some comments on Cedric’s outdoor sketches.

This was tremendously encouraging for a young artist…I think the little touches of encouragement from senior artists are a wonderful thing for a younger man struggling.

Cedric’s Salesmen

One of Cedric’s great mates was a writer named Arthur Burke, who spent a good deal of time in the Callaghan House studio. “Burkie never really worked,” Cedric recalls, “Though he wrote stories for our children and composed a verse for my birthday for many years”.  

When Burkie’s cupboard became bare he would offer to sell an etching or two “to help Cedric out.”   The Macquarie Street medicos were his marks, two guineas being the going rate, proceeds shared between the two of them.   Cedric never found out if there was a genuine market or whether they were bought to get Burkie off the premises.  

Back Burkie would come with the two guineas. Then he’d be off to buy some tucker for the house with his guinea but before he went we had to go and drink my share at Penfolds wine bar.

This does not appear to be a very attractive proposition from Cedric’s point of view but he was happy to be rewarded with introductions to Burkie’s innumerable friends and neighbours in the Rocks. They gave him access to many back yards, out-of-the-way corners and interesting parts of the Rocks, which he was delighted to sketch. He also had the privilege of visiting some old houses with quaint features of design such as dual stairways to the sleeping quarters so that shift-working men would not wake the women and girls as they went off to the wharves in the small hours of the morning.

A tailor with rooms above Cedric in Callaghan House provided another outlet for etchings. Cedric reasoned that anyone who was doing well enough to have tailored suits could afford to buy an etching. He arranged a display of works around the walls on the agreement that Harry the tailor could have one etching for every two that his clients ordered.   This system worked well, giving much satisfaction to Cedric and to many people who wore Harry’s suits. Years later Cedric met Harry’s widow and inquired whether she still had the etchings, which would have appreciated very much in value. She sadly replied that the whole lot had gone off when a suitcase of their possessions was stolen.   Tragically, this fate duplicated that of the plates themselves, stolen in a suitcase while Cedric dropped off  to sleep on a tram going home from the city.

A high point in Cedric’s artistic career occurred in 1938 at the exhibition of the Painter-Etchers Society in David Jones. He submitted four of his best etchings, one of them an ambitious scene of Queens Square. This was a large work made from four plates, a process fraught with hazard due to the element of “feel” in biting the plates and the different performance of the acid according to temperature and other factors beyond the control of the artist.

The Sydney Morning Herald of Nov 3, 1938 recorded the event under the headline ‘Young Etcher’s Work Praised’. In the opening address, Mr Ifould, the Public Librarian, launched some scathing comments at young painters and etchers who make the mistake of wasting copper and canvas before they learn the basic skills of drawing. “Australia had too many artists and too many etchers, although there were some who were capable of taking their places in the best exhibitions in the world”. He noted that the etchings submitted by Mr Emanuel were “of extraordinary quality, and it seemed that he had a considerable future.
Another report spoke in glowing terms of the life and movement in the shadows in Queens Square, the sun and air in “Halvorsens” boatsheds, and the command of detail in “On the Slips”. Among the other exhibitors was his old teacher Dattilo Rubbo with an “Old Man” in charcoal priced at 15 guineas. The National Gallery of NSW purchased Rubbo’s charcoal along with two of Cedric’s etchings for their permanent collection, a huge display of confidence in a young artist at his first show.

Cedric wrote many years later ‘Probably the greatest thrill any young artist can have is to see this plaque on his exhibit at an art show – “Purchased by the trustees of the National Art Gallery”. This was my first art exhibition. Somehow I was not at the opening. Guess I was at the races, down at the beach or meeting a deadline.’

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Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Thanks for this Rafe. Was some nice late night reading for me last night!

16 years ago

I just purchased two small pencil portraits by Cedric Emanuel.
They are beautiful! And reading this just made them that much more special.
Thank you for all of your research and excellent writing.

15 years ago

18 years ago I inherited an etching from my mother. It is titled ‘The Uruti Valley NZ’ I had no idea where this is or or who Cedric Emanuel was until I Googled both those names. Uruti I found is in Taranaki. I was also very pleased to also learn so much about the artist.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion
15 years ago

Thank you Anita and Kirsty!

15 years ago

Good work, Rafe. And not a single Austrian in sight!

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion
15 years ago

Thanks Mel, that was a product of many hours of taped conversation with Cedric in the hope of writing a full biography. The Literature Board did not come to the party so I was not in a position to do a lot of extra research on the social and historical context of his career to make it a kind of social history. The publishers who I approached considered that he was too commercial and not a big enough name in the art world to justify a book. That was probably a fair call, he did no etching after WW2 because he could not see enough money in it, he had a family to support and he pursued his art in other directions, mostly with books of sketches of cities, towns and interesting locations. He was a wonderful character and a fantastic sporting all-rounder as well, though of course that was well behind him by the time we met.

The research was not wasted from my point of view because when Ruth Park was about to donate her collection of Les Darcy material to the Mitchell Library she remembered the preliminary that I did on Cedric and she decided that we could write the Les Darcy book together. Which we did.

Ros Dale
Ros Dale
12 years ago

Thanks Rafe, for your insight (and research)into such an icon of Australian art. I have admired Cedric’s work since a child in the 60’s. At present I am writing a booklet on Berrima and would like to include a couple of his sketches from the Southern Highlands of NSW Sketchbook (1974). Do you have Cedric’s children’s contact details please? If so, could you please pass on my email address to them so we can talk?

Many thanks and regards,


Liz Nolan
Liz Nolan
11 years ago

I have a sketch by Cedric Emanuel, I’d like to kow how old it is?